Updated: Feb 18
Why recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder is a battle against oneself.
What is PTSD?
If left unprocessed, traumatic memories become stuck in the body, manifesting themselves as distressing mental and physical symptoms. Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) is when the traumatised individual remains stuck in the past. Forced to relive the trauma in other ways, the body demands that traumatic memories are confronted, accepted and processed. Only when the individual is able to process the past can she move forward into an unbroken future.
'PTSD' is a relatively new term in the world of psychology. According to ‘Mind,’ post-traumatic stress disorder was first recognised as a condition affecting veterans after traumatic experiences of war. Nowadays, the term has spread to encompass any number of traumatic experiences, and even comes in a complex form in which the individual does not suffer from one specific traumatic episode, but is exposed to traumatic events over a period of time. Examples of complex trauma are prolonged bullying, domestic abuse, chronic neglect, imprisonment or torture.
Whilst traumas may vary in objective seriousness and intensity, the subjective symptoms of PTSD are a common thread connecting a vast number of cases. Essentially, trauma is a deeply distressing, shocking and disturbing experience that the mind and body often find literally unbearable to process. The incapacity to accept and process trauma is not a conscious choice and should not be taken as a sign of weakness. In an attempt to protect oneself from the horrific reality, the brain uses primal methods of self-preservation, shutting the trauma out from conscious reach. Whilst (at least temporarily) effective in avoiding the pain, refusal to accept reality comes with unpleasant consequences.
The traumatised individual is left with crippling anxiety, the source of which comes from a repressed and consciously unknown memory. Whilst the fire of trauma is repressed, it is not put out. Smoke rises from the depths of the psyche, pulling the personality apart and fragmenting the individual’s sense of self. The subject or witness of trauma is unknowingly living in a false reality. By avoiding their pain, they reject themselves and struggle to find a stable and meaningful connection with both themselves and the world around them. The world of PTSD is a terrifying place, but the traumatised mind would rather suffer in a disconnected reality than accept the horrifying truth of their past.
Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score and pioneering researcher in post-traumatic stress writes that “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
The body recognises the repressed trauma as a parasite. The memory is a painful and damaging remnant of the past, which congests the body and keeps the individual held in a perpetual confrontation with a shadowy and unknown past. The trauma remains stuck in the body, and the individual remains stuck in the past.
Why PTSD isn't always obvious
The symptoms of PTSD are extensive, and trauma often goes undiagnosed. Anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, and physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea and trembling can all be symptoms of trauma. However, without some of the more conventional symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and avoiding triggers for the traumatic event, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. In many cases, the traumatic experience is so well hidden from the conscious awareness of the individual that coming to terms with the truth can take a long time.
As van der Kolk writes, “as long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.” Recovery from PTSD is an enormous challenge because it involves a great act of self-overcoming through awareness and acceptance of an intolerable fact.
What it feels like to live with PTSD
I have suffered from PTSD for most of my life; however, it took until symptoms climaxed for me to recognise what was going on. Confusion and terror are perhaps the most persistent emotions that characterise the experience of coming to terms with trauma. The mind is at war with itself – half of you wants to remember and know the truth, but the other half, whose priority is self-protection, refuses to see the truth. A constant war and battle is waged through panic, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, shame and despair. Every possible emotion is faced in its extremity before the mind is finally silenced in order to hear the wisdom of the body.
It took a long time to realise that my panic attacks were actually PTSD episodes. Daily fits of sudden (or sometimes prolonged) fits of disassociation, where I would turn dizzy and hot, disconnecting from the present reality into a past state of mind, overwhelmed with panic, terror, weakness, and an inability to talk or function, were both terrifying and seemingly without a source. To begin with, I thought I was dying - either from a heart attack or a serious reaction to the medication I was taking at the time. I searched and searched for answers, journaling my thoughts, attempting to pinpoint triggers and causes, largely to no avail. I was exhausted from severe depression and riddled with strange panic attacks that made no sense. Something within me was clearly crying for help, but I couldn't hear the cries beyond the overwhelming sensations of fear, despair and terror.
Symptoms such as depression, panic attacks, disassociation, suicidal thoughts, and chronic anxiety suggest a terrifying descent into mental illness. Sadly, many trauma survivors settle with this conclusion; however, this is often not the full story. In PTSD, it is not simply the case that the individual is mentally ill. The symptoms arise because the body is signalling that something is wrong, that there is a source of pain deep within the body that needs addressing. Extreme psychological pain makes no sense without a conscious memory, and often the mind is forced to assume the worst.
In some cases, the mind wants to believe that it is seriously unwell, confused, or going mad, in an attempt to stop us from facing reality. Once you admit that you are a passive victim of mental illness, you believe that you don’t have the strength to search for truth. You stop trusting yourself, assume that every thought and instinct you have is somehow wrong or misjudged. A mental health crisis is a dark and difficult time, but crises often force us to go within. It was at this time, when I experienced my worst bouts of crippling depression and anxiety, that I ventured within and cultured a sense of self-awareness that I would need to uncover my own repressed trauma. However, self-awareness and knowledge are often not enough to overcome the strength and resistance of one’s own mind. What is crucial to recovery is a sense of safety and love. The body needs to be in a comfortable, loving, and safe environment in order to heal. Defences need to be lowered to confront trauma, and this can only be done when lowering one’s defences is an option. We cannot recover from trauma in the same environment in which we were traumatised.
Since trauma recovery is a battle against oneself, a therapist is a crucial ally on the side of the truth-seeker. Finding the right therapist took me a few years of trial and error, but it was definitely the turning point in my recovery story. It is important to feel safe, seen, and deeply understood by a therapist in order to face up to a dark and painful reality. With the right therapist, I was able to transition from meaningless panic attacks and depression to flashbacks and memories of a childhood trauma which helped to make sense of my symptoms. However difficult and gruelling, recovery is possible. There is no doubt that the journey to recovery, in PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any other mental health crisis is extremely challenging, perhaps the most difficult and perilous journey we face in our lifetimes. But I believe that with darkness comes light, and survivors of trauma leave their journey with a depth of awareness and understanding of both themselves and the world that would not be possible without the things that they had lived through.
I write this post in my final stages of recovery. This blog post aims to raise awareness for those continuing to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and reach out to anyone battling with the themes covered in this blog. Leave a comment below or get in contact with me on social media if you would like to share your experience.